(Portland, Oregon) While the rest of the nation celebrates a transformational election that could not have taken place without minorities in general and Barack Obama in particular gaining access to political power at the state level, the Oregon legislature is making ready to convene in 2009 as its least-diverse body in decades.
In Oregon, it is the irony of stepping backward to pre-civil rights times as President-Elect Obama prepares to take residence in the White House that rises to historical proportions….
Sal Esquivel, a moderate Republican from southern Oregon, hung on to re-election by his fingernails. He will be the House of Representatives’ sole non-white member for the 2009-2011 biennium.
The irony…the irony….
And as it has for the past three biennia, the Oregon Democratic Party will sift out all of its non-white candidates in its partisan primaries and send a completely Caucasian House delegation to Salem. With a single exception, the same for the Senate.
Some say race is not a factor….
Some say affirmative action is no longer relevant, that equality has been reached….
Some say that Oregon’s partisan primary system works as intended….
…I’m sure that last one is the case….
After all, it was created in a day when only white men could own property or vote in an Oregon election….
This fact was reflected in the many Measure 37 hearings I monitored over the past several years. Those hearing rooms were always filled with white people; the proceedings completely irrelevant to Oregon’s minority populations.
Measure 37 looked back, you see, to those days when a person of color could not own or purchase property outside of certain urban areas in the state.
To have a Measure 37 claim, you pretty much had to be white….
How quickly people forget….
As a candidate for Senate District 23, the most racially and ethnically diverse senate district in Oregon, every endorsement interview I attended was conducted by a panel of 100% white people, with a single exception….
American Federation of Teachers (AFT): all white
Carpenters Union: all white; the one minority present left mid-interview
Firefighters: all white
Sierra Club: all white
Oregon League of Conservation Voters (OLCV): all white
Stand for Children: all white
Basic Rights: all white
SEIU: the single exception—one person in the room was also a minority
AFSCME: all white and already in the tank (see AFSCME-gate post)
Building Trades: all white
Planned Parenthood: all white
Oregon Education Association (OEA): all white
Portland Association of Teachers: all white
The panels themselves mostly consisted of paid lobbyists and a handful or less of union members ranging from hard core to novices.
Few of these interview panelists were actually constituents of the district I was seeking to represent.
As a Mexican-American, a Chicano, I have a lifetime of experience reading white people’s facial and body language. Most of these panelists had never sent a person of color to the legislature before, and had probably never seen the inside of the state capitol.
Those are big hurdles to overcome in a 15-20 minute interview.
I didn’t ask any of them for their money….
They already knew what they were going to do….
The Democratic Party of Multnomah County itself played no role in the primary process itself; did not host a single public event, no forums or debates, staged nothing that might pose a threat to its incumbents' ambitions.
The publicly-funded Oregon League of Minority Voters (OLMV) spent the entire primary period ignoring minority candidates for the Oregon legislature, running and hiding, ducking and dodging, slippin' and slidin', stayed far away from the question of who would succeed Senator Avel Gordly in the Oregon Senate and who would serve in her old House seat.
Many of the OLMV members, you see, are secret members of the Committee-Once-Bent-on-Renaming-Interstate Avenue AND signed on to my opponent’s campaign, and you get the picture….
Did I mention that the OLMV is funded with your tax money?
But that was the past, and now we look to the future of the state, and how its legislature will reflect its citizenry….
That may be a couple of decades in the future….
The Senate has only two persons of color among its 30 members. Republican Senator Jackie Winters and Democratic Senator Margaret Carter are probably serving their last terms before retirement.
And then there will be none….
The clearest path to the Oregon Senate is through the House, but there is no place for people of color there, not for Democrats.
Individually, the Members are all good, hard-working, dedicated people….
But collectively, as a reflection of the state’s racial and ethnic makeup, issues and priorities, they fail to meet the rhetoric of inclusion and democracy.
They do make the case for open primaries and other electoral reform, though.
Oregon’s partisan primary system keeps us mired back in the era where decisions were made in smoke-filled rooms….
There was plenty of smoke in those endorsement interview rooms I was in….
You couldn’t see it, but you sure could smell it.
November 6, 2008